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Russia's Return to the G7/G8?

John Kirton, G7 Research Group
June 8, 2018

On June 8, as he was about to leave for Charlevoix, Quebec, to attend the annual G7 summit starting that day, U.S. president Donald Trump publicly suggested that it was time for Russia to return to the G7. He said: "Russia should be in this meeting. Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting? And I would recommend — and it's up to them, but Russia should be in the meeting, it should be a part of it. You know, whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run and the G7 — which used to be the G8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table."

Such suggestions had been periodically made by many since Russia had been suspended from the G8 in 2014, due to its aggression and annexation of territory in Ukraine. Trump's installment, delivered in his apparently bold, bolt out of the blue was just the latest, but a welcome move in many ways.

First, it showed that Trump was now focusing on how to make the G7 work better as a club, rather than still attacking its members with words and deeds, notably the imposition of tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from Japan, the European Union and Canada. It confirmed that he fully understood that the G7 together, and not America alone, was the "we" that had "a world to run."

Second, it was a serious suggestion on a central issue. Russia's carefully calculated increasing involvement with the G7 summit, starting when Soviet leader Mikael Gorbachev joined it for a session at the London Summit in 1991, had played an important part in the Cold War victory that globally spread the G7's core ideals of open democracy, individual liberty and social advance. Starting the process of a reform in Russia's return could constitute a second Cold War victory, with Donald Trump as the Ronald Reagan—like leader and winner, should the initiative culminate in Crimea's return to a Ukraine that was finally free and whole.

Third, Trump's suggestion could flow from a personal sense, or even a private signal, that Russia might finally be ready to change course and take one of the many "off ramps" that the G7 had offered Putin to prevent him from reaching the end of his losing road. The U.S.-led escalation of sanctions against Russia that are now doing serious, visible damage to Russia's economy could be leading Putin to finally follow the economic path promoted by Alexi Kudrin, which requires engagement with the West. G7 leaders' historic endorsement of military force by its American, British and French members against Putin's ally, Bahir Assad of Syria, may be another prompt. And with the announced reduction in Russia's military budget, juxtaposed against the massive increase in the American one, Putin might have come to realize, as did his Soviet predecessors in the 1980s, that this is an arms race with the West he cannot win, without becoming dependent on a rising China next door. It may even be that Putin has offered to help Trump denuclearize North Korea, the Russian neighbour that Trump that tops Trump's mind as he prepare to fly to Singapore.

Finally, Trump's proposal was for a single, clearly specified, sensible purpose — to have Russia at the "negotiating table." This could mean to have Russia negotiate its departure from Ukraine, the way that the predecessor Soviet Union had departed from the Afghanistan it had invaded in 1979 to help end the Cold War a decade hence. With the failure of the G7's first invention — the Normandy format the G7 invented in 2014 — it is time to consider other formats, such as the G7 post-summit session with Gorbachev in 1991. Such a move could be made when the French president hosts the G7 next year, or when the U.S. president does the year after, in America's presidential election year. Or the U.S. president could even call a special summit, as Reagan did to help him deal with the Soviet Union in 1985.

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